Billy Graham: The king of the evangelical industry

Billy Graham with his son Franklin in 1994.

Billy Graham with his son Franklin in 1994.


Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.’’


-- Matthew 19:21


Later, maybe....


Billy Graham’s death last week at 99 brought back memories of hearing his stentorian voice on radio and TV over the decades.  What a set of pipes! Loved it! That voice, his charm and charisma and his ability to curry favor with (and sometimes suck up to) the rich and powerful made him rich and for a long time one of the most famous Americans. He sometimes seemed to forget that Jesus is quoted as saying: “My kingdom is not of this world.’’  

In his rather theatrically self-deprecatory way, he wallowed in luxury celebrityhood. And he used powerful politicians to promote himself and they used him to curry favor with the voters, especially white Southerners.

I found some of his biblical literalism idiotic, along with some of his theology, although who knows how much he really believed in himself. And he rephrased some of his views over the years to keep up with some social and political changes and avoid offending too many potential customers. (I still find the anti-Semitism he expressed in talking with Richard Nixon sickening, but maybe that was just more sucking up to curry favor with the powerful.)

I have always found people telling us what God thinks to be a bit, well, presumptuous. But it’s good for business from the millions who want certainty in this crazy world and are terrified by the prospect of death. As one wag put it, the Rev. Mr. Graham promised a nice condo in heaven.

Billy Graham was far from the richest man in the evangelical industry, but died with a net worth of $25 million. The lucrative family business continues: His son Franklin Graham runs an outfit called Samaritan’s Purse that for 2014, the most recent year for which I can find his compensation, paid him a salary of $622,252.

Franklin is also a  devoted Republican, and a fan of that Christian gentleman Donald Trump.  To think that Billy Graham used to rail against “wickedness, licentiousness and debauchery.” (I have long wondered, by the way, how many abortions the president may have had something to with….)

The best thing about Billy Graham was that he moved earlier than most of his fellow white peers in the evangelical biz to embrace integration and other elements of racial justice, which discomfited many of his Southern white followers. That took some courage. But then it was also good business: It expanded his customer base. He generally became less judgmental, more tolerant and increasingly ecumenical as he aged. Very admirable!

Meanwhile, it’s predictable that the Republican-controlled Congress would arrange for the preacher/businessman’s body to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Many, many other Americans,  including scientists, physicians, inventors and, yes, politicians, did far more than the Rev. Mr. Graham to improve American lives. But many of those weren’t Republicans. This is all about appealing to the GOP base.